If someone in the mid 1960s had placed a microphone next to Ringo Starr’s stomach while he ate a particularly sumptuous meal and recorded the ensuing gastric symphony, chances are that years later Beatles historians would be eager to hear the piece and would debate its place in the band’s canon.
“Carnival of Light,” a 14-minute experimental track recorded by the Beatles during the “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” sessions, is considered to be a bit weightier than that. But few really know for sure, because few have heard it.
“Carnival” is a long-buried treasure that is finally being dusted off and prepared for release by Sir Paul McCartney. It probably won’t offer the wistful buoyancy of, say, “Penny Lane,” even though “Carnival” was recorded on Jan. 5, 1967, while the band took a break from recording vocal tracks for that classic. Its significance will likely be limited to those with an insatiable Beatles appetite. But of course, there are lots of those.
“Anything that the Beatles recorded, especially during that time period, is very significant,” said music producer Will Schillinger. Presently he is the chief engineer at Pilot Recording Studios, but has recorded more than 40 bands at Abbey Road Studios. He estimates he has more than 1,000 Beatles records, 400 Beatles books and hundreds of Beatles-related publications.
“It’s the most influential music of my lifetime, and possibly ever. This is a period during the early stages of the ‘Sgt. Pepper’ recording sessions, so it was the beginning of their trippy experimental phase. For that alone, it’s worth a listen. For me, it was a very important time in Beatles music.”
Guitarist Andy York is a self-described “Beatles nerd” who is currently on tour with John Mellencamp’s band. On occasion, he sits in with the Fab Faux, arguably the best Beatles cover band in existence. He said he has been obsessed with the lads since seeing the Beatles’ cartoon series as a 6-year-old.
“I think its significance lies in the fact that it is the longest and probably the most psychedelic piece the Beatles ever recorded,” York said of “Carnival.”
“Half-speed recorded drums. Backwards guitars. Feedback. Organ bass notes. Demented screaming vocals. All buried in reverb and echo. It pre-dates ‘Revolution 9’ and ‘What’s the New Mary Jane’ by a year and a half, which seems to add credence to the argument that Paul McCartney was well-immersed in the avant-garde scene as was John Lennon. Indeed, by all accounts this is McCartney’s brainchild.”
Song for electronic music festival
The public knows Lennon and McCartney as bitter and sweet, respectively. But most Beatles aficionados know that the dynamic between the songwriting titans was never that simple. McCartney was commissioned to write “Carnival” for an electronic music festival at the Roundhouse Theater in London. At the time, McCartney was influenced by composers Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage, who were as unconventional as Eleanor Rigby was lonely.
During the “Sgt. Pepper” sessions, McCartney recruited the other three Beatles to help him record the piece that would become “Carnival.” He asked them to make sounds, any sounds. As a result, there is gargling, banging, shouts of “Are you all right?” and “Barcelona!” and much more.
“We obviously know that John did a lot of experimental stuff, such as ‘Revolution No. 9’ and ‘Tomorrow Never Knows,’ ” noted Andy Babiuk, a musician and member of the Chesterfield Kings and author of the book, “Beatles Gear,” a comprehensive account of the equipment used by the band. “But I don’t think McCartney gets enough credit for being experimental as well. He was very experimental. He didn’t do just traditional pop songs.”
Oddly, one of the reasons “Carnival of Light” has never been released is because it was deemed too far out by none other than George Harrison, perhaps the group’s most sonically adventurous member.
“My understanding is that George Harrison never initially approved of the track,” Schillinger said. “He thought it was too avant-garde, which seems a little odd to me since George was involved in a great deal of Indian music, which at that time was considered to be somewhat avant-garde music, as well as Moog synthesizer-based music. He recorded ‘Electronic Sound’ (Harrison’s second solo album) in 1969.”
Years later, “Carnival of Light” was also considered for the band’s “Anthology” CDs, but it was ruled out, partly because it was so unusual and partly because it is almost 15 minutes long.
Not only is “Carnival” a delicacy for specific tastes, but some Beatles freaks are hungrier than others for it. Bruce Spizer, an author and historian who has written seven books on the Beatles, including “The Beatles Story on Capitol Records, Parts I and II” and “The Beatles on Apple Records,” admits he would like to hear “Carnival,” but is keeping his expectations in check.
“I think the legendary ‘holy grail’ status that’s attached to the track is because so few have heard it and not because it’s a brilliant piece of Beatles music,” Spizer said. “So I don’t think it’s the gem that the early take of ‘I’m Looking Through You’ that appeared on ‘Anthology’ is.”
Spizer said Beatles producer Sir George Martin — who was contacted for this story but declined comment — didn’t think much of “Carnival,” either. “The story I heard,” Spizer said, “is that Sir George was reminded of it and his response was, ‘I’ve forgotten about that and it’s just as well.’ I think he regarded it as a frivolous waste of time.”
Still, there undoubtedly is a legion of Beatles loyalists who will line up to hear the track once it is made available, which could be anytime after the release is approved by Ringo, Yoko Ono and Harrison’s widow Olivia. That begs the question: Are there any other buried-treasure recordings by the Beatles still to be unearthed?
“One live recording,” Babiuk said. “From the last time the Beatles toured England, in December of ’65. Paul played ‘Yesterday’ on a Vox organ. I’ve been looking feverishly for years, talking to people. I’m looking for a simple hand recording, anything.”
“I heard there were some additional songwriting moments during the making of ‘Magical Mystery Tour,’ some interesting outtake stuff,” Schillinger said. “Also a series of recordings of the film and the rooftop sessions of ‘Let It Be,' referenced by some known recordings on a Nagra (tape recorder) on the side of the room by one of the film guys.”
On Spizer’s wish list: “The 27-minute version of ‘Helter Skelter’ that wasn’t put on ‘Anthology.’ That’s something other Beatles fans would be interested in. Also, from my standpoint, I’d rather hear take one of ‘A Day in the Life,’ with just John’s lead vocal and drum track. I’m interested in the idea behind it, that from this very intimate sound, what starts as a small thing grows into this fabulous production number.”
In the meantime, those who study the Beatles will have to settle for “Carnival.” Rich Pagano, a member of the Fab Faux as well as an accomplished solo artist (richpagano.com), said even though the track is strange, it’s still a valuable piece of popular music history.
“The Beatles have become a template for the great pop hook or arrangement,” Pagano said. “There is always something to learn from their creative process. Of course, this will appeal a bit more to those of us who dissect their music to understand why it is so brilliant.
“The bootlegs, work-in-progress, unreleased tracks are essential to study exactly what they peeled away to get to the essence of the song.”